Dakar — Scores of youths are hiding in the bush near the town of Kédougou, southeastern Senegal, having fled following riots and mass arrests by police, according to residents.
"Many, many youths are still hiding in the bush, living and sleeping under the trees," said a man in Kédougou who did not want to be named. He said he spent two days among the displaced. "They are afraid to return."
A Senegal-based human rights group, RADDHO, has said security forces wrongfully arrested and "tortured" citizens after protests over poor living conditions in the mining region turned violent.
In a 28 December communiqué, RADDHO said the unrest in Kédougou - some 700km from the capital Dakar - mirrored problems in most mineral-rich areas of Africa. "Everyone knows that in Africa mining resources become threats to peace and security." RADDHO is calling for talks among the authorities, political parties, civil society and mining companies to ensure that local residents benefit from mineral resources.
On 23 December youths took to the streets of Kédougou, the main city in the region of the same name, to demonstrate over what residents say are longstanding grievances. Residents told IRIN Kédougou's population is marginalised by the government, and young people are consistently passed over for jobs linked to gold-mining operations.
When the march turned violent, demonstrators torched several government buildings, witnesses said. Residents told IRIN early in the march youths damaged government property but that it was when forces opened fire that demonstrators began widespread vandalism. A 30-year-old man - who witnesses say was not among the protesters - died from a gunshot wound.
In a 24 December communiqué the Senegalese Information Ministry said the government is investigating the events. The government regrets the loss of life and presents its condolences to families affected, and "is committed to get to the bottom of these events, in a spirit of transparency and justice", the statement said.
The communiqué said 23 demonstrators, 10 gendarmes and two soldiers were wounded.
Authorities said several weapons went missing during the riot, and in the days that followed police began searching homes and making arrests.
One man told IRIN he was arrested while at home eating with family members; he said he was beaten before being released hours later.
The 40-year-old said gendarmes entered the home and asked for someone by name, becoming agitated when the family said the person was not there. "At one point I stood up to do something in the next room, and they grabbed me by the collar, saying I had no right to get up."
The man said he was beaten during several hours in detention. "They hit me on my face, my neck - all over. They struck my feet to force me to the ground. One of them stood on my chest... They poured hot water on my face and chest. They hit me with a rifle butt."
"They were saying: 'We're going to kill you.'"
When arrests began scores of youths fled the town, according to the man who spent two days in the bush with other displaced youths.
"Those carrying out the arrests were not worried about who the people were or whether they were guilty of anything," he said.
He said the young people in the bush were living mostly on bread and cookies brought to them by people in the town of Kédougou or nearby villages. The man said several young men had crossed the nearby border into Guinea.
Residents of Kédougou told IRIN that as of 1 January life was slowly returning to normal but people were afraid - particularly those whose relatives were still in detention. The 26 people reportedly arrested were taken to the neighbouring region, Tambacounda, as the judicial facilities in Kédougou had been destroyed.
National gendarmerie spokesperson Daouda Diop told IRIN the authorities carried out their work in Kédougou "by the book, in conformity with the law". He said: "Searches are taking place according to the rules and with the consent of the people on the premises." He added: "It is normal that we search for [these missing] arms to assure public security."
On the charges of human rights violations he said: "I would ask that these organisations [making the charges] go to the site in question, Kédougou, 700km from Dakar, to see for themselves what's going on."
The Information Ministry in its communiqué said the government is pleased with the involvement of religious and community leaders, youths and authorities in working to restore calm.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]